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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Radiohead: Pablo Honey

RADIOHEAD: PABLO HONEY (1993)

1) You; 2) Creep; 3) How Do You?; 4) Stop Whispering; 5) Thinking About You; 6) Anyone Can Play Guitar; 7) Ripcord; 8) Vegetable; 9) Prove Yourself; 10) I Can't; 11) Lurgee; 12) Blow Out.

General verdict: Solid, accessible, soulful rock music for sensitive, vulnerable clients of the genre.

I probably need to get this out of the way at the very start: in my opinion, or, more accurately, in my heart Pablo Honey, the much-maligned debut of Radiohead, is a better record than at least anything that this band has offered the world since Kid A. It took the world the smash success and artistic innovation of The Bends and OK Computer to take more accurate notice of the relative virtues of Pablo Honey, but the truth is, no matter how derivative and unimaginative these songs might seem, the classic spirit of Radiohead permeates them — and at this point, the classic spirit of Radiohead is still unencumbered by the fervent idea of «we are Radiohead, the world expects nothing but the best from us» that, as far as I'm concerned, has sharply sabotaged their career in the 21st century.

True, in 1992, Radiohead were just a rock band: five college guys, inspired by the Neil Young / Lou Reed school of merging noise with beauty, anger with idealism, and self-pity with self-promotion. Against a background of dozens, if not hundreds, of bands with the same agenda, there was fairly little hope of them registering in any special way on the pop scene radar. In retro­spect, we can see how Thom Yorke's distinctive vocal style already transcended the stereotypical grunge pattern, with additional shades ranging from lyrical to epical; and how Johnny Green­wood's noisy guitar riffage was already much more melodic in general than the monotonous rhythmic buzz expected from the average grunge outfit. Back in 1992-93, though, critics and general listeners alike may have well been excused for failing to note that, what with the market being oversaturated with noisy rock muzak in the wake of Nirvana's explosion.

The thing is, Radiohead were actually quite good at noisy rock muzak. All of these songs, and I do stress, all of them are quite well written: all of them are meaningful, catchy, energetic, and generally well-recorded rock songs that reflect the formative, insecure, but tentatively self-asser­ting nature of a bunch of young college kids as perfectly as, say, Please Please Me reflected the formative, brash, life-conquering nature of a bunch of young Liverpool hoodlums. Despite having certain elements in common with grunge, Pablo Honey is not about wanting to sound like Cobain or, God forbid, Eddie Vedder: it is about using the musical experience of the underground movement to convey a set of somewhat less harsh, but equally stinging feelings about your own insecure place in the universe.

No matter how much they used to hate it themselves or how much it has been overplayed, ʽCreepʼ, the visiting card of Pablo Honey, still remains a masterpiece. (Ironically, records show that it was not even a big hit in the first place: its popularity was tube-grown from the original small bunch of Radiohead fans). Few songs capture that aching sentiment of being frustrated over your own limitations as compared to some unreachable ideal with so much precision: most, when they try, simply go on whining about it, but ʽCreepʼ carefully manipulates you into exploding — Greenwood's famous «dead notes» before the explosion are particularly great, like somebody kicking a malfunctioning detonator in total frustration — and, most importantly, even once the loud distorted guitars kick in, the song never loses its romantic flavor: there is a tenderness in Thom's delivery of the "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo" lines that is then taken to the next level in the "she's running out again" bridge — look how effortlessly the song flows into it from the chorus, with the rise to falsetto and the clever mix of desperation and admiration. No matter how much Radiohead have progressed since then, ʽCreepʼ already offers us their main agenda in full — pity for the sinner in the here and now, beauty for the Platonic idealist in whatever lies beyond. Every­thing that comes later is just technical innovations on the same artistic subject.

The worst thing that can be said about the other songs is that they all follow that same agenda, too: every other tune is about how the various imperfections of the protagonist prevent him from getting the girl or getting to Heaven, which, in the grand symbolic scheme of things, is pretty much the same shit. But how is that a problem when each song has its own individual merits? To knock off just a few examples: ʽStop Whisperingʼ has a complex, technically difficult, twisted, but catchy vocal path from verse to chorus — perhaps the closest Yorke has ever come to sounding like Bono, and he does a pretty good job at this; ʽRipcordʼ puts a fairly generic descen­ding chord pattern to great symbolic use, creating the illusion of crashing down once it is paired with Yorke's constant invocations of the «ripcord» (or, rather, the lack of it) motive; ʽLurgeeʼ somehow manages to impress by having essentially one line stubbornly repeated over and over — but I guess that there is no better way to convince people of how shitty you really feel than by end­lessly chanting "I got better, I got better, I got strong"... and so on.

Also, although in terms of technical mastery and musical complexity Pablo Honey has nothing on whatever would follow, it should be pointed out that even in this unexperienced state, these guys are already capable of producing impressive sonic panoramas: in particular, the whirlwind finale of ʽBlow Outʼ, closing out the record, is handled quite professionally, creating a terrifying musical vortex into which, as I guess we are supposed to imagine, the protagonist is finally sucked — for better or for worse, nobody can really tell. (But I'd guess for better: since there are no themes of Hellish retribution on the album, I imagine he is being sucked into Heavenly bliss, where he can finally get a proper chance at being so fuckin' special). Nothing particularly new or mind-blowing about this, but hey, it works, and that is far more than I can say about dozens of New Musical Ideas in Radiohead's 21st century catalog.

Cutting a potentially long story short, I do not recommend the somewhat typically condescending attitude towards Pablo Honey — like the young Beatles, the young Radiohead had a certain subtle special something to offer that can no longer be found on their «mature» albums, and that special something is not necessarily just limited to «more rock, less experimentation». One might scoff at these conventional song structures, limited influences, and vocal hooks rooted in rock and pop rather than Richard D. James and Krzystof Penderecki, but one cannot deny that songs like ʽCreepʼ, ʽLurgeeʼ, or ʽBlow Outʼ belong to Radiohead and nobody else — not Blur, not Oasis, not Pearl Jam, not Dinosaur Jr. For 99% of modern indie bands, this kind of quality would probably remain unsurpassed, anyway.

On an amusing technical note, acoustic Radiohead at this point sound very closely to the way that Neutral Milk Hotel would sound six years later on In The Aeroplane — the expanded 2-CD version of Pablo Honey throws in their earliest EP, Drill, whose ʽStupid Carʼ, perhaps with just a slight change in tonality, could be easily added to NMH's masterpiece and nobody would have noticed. All right, so maybe Thom Yorke has this tearful component in his voice that Mangum generally lacks (Thom seems to take life more seriously in most cases), but the cosmopolitan loose-soulful-rambling vibe is there for sure. He would rarely allow himself to be so upfront and singer-songwriterish in the times to come.

8 comments:

  1. "Few songs capture that aching sentiment"
    It's actually in this department that Therapy? beats everyone. No wonder when you grow up in Norther Ireland/Ulster during the Troubles as an awkdward teen boy. Songs like Punishment Kiss (1991), Skinning Pit (1991), Gone (1992) and Screamager (1994) do it better than Creep.

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  2. Other than being one of my favorite groups, one of Radiohead's more abstract historical values is always floating questions like "Can rock still be revolutionary and/or massively popular?" and "How is rock going to be remembered, and where is it going?" At this point, they've become as canonized and standardized as any long-lived modern band can be, so it's fascinating to hear a well-told side of the story from someone whose values don't intersect with the crowd. Don't worry George, everyone seems to have a legendary artist they just can't get into and insist is overrated! Maybe this time you'll adore Kid A, etc. ;) haha

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  3. I disagree strongly with you re. post-Kid-A Radiohead in general (although it took me a while to come around to that view), but I think we're on the same page with regard to "Pablo Honey"'s generally being far better than most people think. I enjoy most of the album, and love the dickens out of "How Do You," "Ripcord," and other tracks that never get mentioned in polite discussion (or, err, played live anymore).

    A few brief thoughts. Only in the "Pablo Honey" era are some of the contemporary B-sides kind of questionable; I don't think much of "Inside My Head" or "Million Dollar Question," although I quite like the rest (including the much-maligned non-album single "Pop Is Dead"). This always struck me as strange, because the band's pre-EMI demos contained a ton of songs that could've easily been revived as post-signing B-sides ("Give It Up"). But whatever, I'm glad we have what we have, and the deluxe edition serves it all to you alongside some nice live and BBC bonuses.

    (In fact: wouldn't it make sense to review the Deluxe Edition as Deluxe Editions? Since they collect all of the unique song stray B-sides in one place, they might as well be their own entity.)

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  4. I also very much disagree with your post-OKC view of Radiohead, George. Over the years I've considered many of your reviews accurate and they've pushed me to try a lot of music I wouldn't have otherwise, but we're going to have to agree to disagree with this band. AFAIC pre-Kid A they were a grunge band and nothing more. One of the best? Well, maybe, but this music is so far disaligned with my taste that I could never get into them even if you threw out 10/10 scores.

    Before Kid-A they were a high-functioning emo band at best. Talented but with a tremendously limitied musical viewpoint. From Kid-A they became one of those rare bands that are brave enough to create music that asks questions but doesn't necessarily _answer_ them. Yes, I LIKE being left with a big ? In my head after listening to The King Of Limbs (for example), because that is vastly more interesting than generic noisy emo song 38245.

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    1. I'm kind of with George on post-Kid A Radiohead (I probably respect it a bit more but I never really got into what I've heard of it) but I do find it strange how you could paint Pablo Honey, the Bends and OK Computer with the same brush. There's a lot of progression between those albums and just the move from garage rock on Pablo to a much greater level of real beauty on the Bends to the unabashed artiness of OK Computer, refutes the idea that they were musically limited in this period.

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    2. In general, I am more fond of humble successes more than grandiose failures. (There are exceptions, but Radiohead are not among them).

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    3. Hipster Karma PoliceJanuary 20, 2018 at 2:35 AM

      There's a certain kind of Radiohead post Kid A religious worshipers that are in denial of pre millennium music, because they've seen the light once Yorke decided to say no to melody, guitar and other "old-school shit". Hence you can read comic quotes like "pre-Kid A they were a grunge band and nothing more", and "Before Kid-A they were a high-functioning emo band at best". I agree, since Kid A they are more like a low functioning emo band. He can't even squeeze some kind of inspiring emotion out of his near empty alienated stream of consciousness in most of the cases anymore.

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  5. Just got around to listening to this record again after maybe a decade (!) due to your recommendation - what a great sound! One question - does 'Stop Whispering' really have a complex, technically difficult vocal melody from verse to chorus? It seems to me to be one of the more standard and uninteresting vocals on the record. Interested to hear your thoughts.

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